Sunday, May 01, 2005

There is a City Beneath the City


Cue the "Third Man" theme.

Well, it's not nearly that dramatic, but it is true that occasionally one sees something of passing interest in one of the San Francisco BART stations, where the trains run underground. Saturday night my wife and I parked at the Macarthur station in north Oakland and took a train in to see the San Francisco Symphony do a little Bach and lots of Handel -- and isn't it interesting that I placed sight as the queen of the senses and let you assume we were able to hear the symphony, too?

We were pretty high up, in the second tier, but we could hear them very well.

Anyway, in the City Center BART station on the way in, we heard some violin music and then saw who was playing it: a grey-haired woman sitting against the wall busking, with her fiddle case open in front of her. Immediately, my wife fished a dollar out of her purse and walked me over to the violin player. Later, my wife told me that the violin playing sounded good to her -- no squeaking. I certainly couldn't tell. I thought it was fine. What was interesting, however, was that the violin player was wearing a low-cut top, and she had pulled her breasts up into the open. But because of the way the top cut across, they were somewhat mashed and the nipples were pointing in other than the standard directions.

As my wife dropped the dollar in, the woman gave me a look that might have been defiant and might have been startled or might have been mildly deranged or perhaps was just an expression of irritation at the interruption. It wasn't coquetteish or provocative.

My wife didn't even notice the exposed breasts. She was intent on her act of charity, concentrating on hitting the violin case with the dollar. If you miss the container provided in such situations, it might appear contemptuous, as if you want to see the busker scramble for the money.

I wasn't quite sure what to make of bare-breasted violin playing. I tried this little witticism out on my wife: "It looks like she is exposing her breasts because she doesn't have enough confidence in her violin playing, but it actually could be she's playing the violin because she doesn't have enough confidence in her breasts."

That almost means something. Restoration Drama has a lot to answer for, including the career of Oscar Wilde.

Actually, I don't believe her conduct was calculated to increase receipts. I think if she thought that then she was really crazy. I think when you seen a pair of breasts staring out at odd angles you're likely to hurry past without dropping in a dollar. I think this woman was working through something, and I doubt she's ever going to get there. If I were still a reporter, I might have stopped to ask. That is the great thing about being a reporter. You have a license to pry, almost a duty. It will not be assumed that your interest is personal, that you want to intervene, to offer help, to stay any longer than it will take to get the story or to know any more than is necessary to create a story. You represent the free-floating curiosity of your readers, which is sometimes prurient and sometimes constructive and altruistic.

Actually all of those, of course.

When you are a reporter, everything you see is a type or a piece of a puzzle or an early warning. It's never just itself. It's never something you have to take responsibility for. Some reporters do become involved in one way or another, but those who do know it's unusual and are apologetic. It's not the job.

That's what I was thinking as we walked away from the woman with bosoms -- and probably brain -- askew. As a citizen, the only possible excuse for wanting to know something about her would be to do something about her.

I forgot. If you're some kind of artist, you don't need any excuse of any kind. Nothing has to be communicated in any recognizable or comprehensible form. Ask all the questions you want and then walk away. Truth is beauty and beauty is truth. That's all we know on earth, and that's all we need to know, etc. I appreciate artists (real ones, I mean; there's a topic) more than I do reporters, but I like reporters better.

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